Proposal for a Green Letter Bible
There are already many “Red Letter Bibles” in which Jesus’s words are printed in red. I grew up with one. I remember at about age twelve wondering how Jesus could have said much of what was in red, especially in John 1.
There is also the “Blue Letter Bible” project promoted especially by Calvary Chapels, a denomination founded by Jesus People leader Chuck Smith. However, if I understand correctly, that is not literally to publish any particular words in the Bible in blue.
But, to avoid conflict or confusion, I am proposing a “Green Letter Bible.” It can be together with Red Letter Bibles and Blue Letter Bibles. So what is it?
Years ago, during my doctoral studies in New Testament (under German New Testament scholar Werner Kelber), I learned that many of the Apostle Paul’s words in his epistles are actually quotations from his opponents. The book that especially brought this to my attention and convinced me of it was by New Testament scholar Robert Jewett and was about Paul’s use of his opponents’ own word in the Corinthian epistles. That cleared up a world of confusion in my mind about why Paul would say, for example, that “All things are lawful” and “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” followed by “God will destroy both one and the other.” (1 Corinthians 6)
Some translations such as the NRSV put some words in Paul’s epistles in quotations marks to indicate, I suppose, that the translators think Paul is quoting the intended readers whom he is intending to correct. All well and good, but do most readers notice those quotation marks? And, in my opinion, not enough (in the NRSV) are placed in quotation marks.
When I read Paul’s letters I see many phrases and sentences that I think probably (almost certainly) are Paul’s opponents or people’s he is correcting. He has clearly received letters or oral reports about what is being said in some of the churches and is writing to correct bad theology. For example, Romans 2:25 says “Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law.” Take away “indeed” and Paul is almost certainly parroting back to some Jewish Christians what they are saying. Also, in Romans 1:16 Paul says “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” There Paul is almost certainly responding to someone in the church in Rome who said that Paul was ashamed of the gospel.
How exactly to place parts of some sentences in green will be a challenge because, as in the examples given above, not every word in a sentence where Paul is quoting his opponents (or just confused Christians) in order to correct them is theirs.
My sole point here is really just to alert Bible teachers to the fact that to avoid confusion you need to inform your readers or listeners about this fact—namely that many of Paul’s phrase and words and sometimes sentences are actually quotations of other people, usually opponents of his gospel or just confused Christians who need his correction.
I am teaching a weekly Bible study in Romans and am finding that some in the group have not recognized this reality but seem helped, enlightened, by my pointing it out.
This reality also calls into question the “inerrancy of the Bible” if not fully qualified to include the fact that some statements in the Bible are simply false because they are quotations (partial or complete) of opponents of the gospel. I realize that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy makes this qualification but only about statements made by Satan, demons, or false prophets. If someone going by the CSBI think those are the only false statements, however, they may assume that everything Paul wrote is God’s Word. It isn’t. In fact, going further, in Romans 3 Paul says as an aside (often placed in parentheses by translators) “I speak in a human way.” Just before that he quotes someone who said, so he heard, “God is unjust to inflict wrath on us.”
Again, my message here is mainly to those who teach Bible studies, but also to thoughtful readers of the Bible. Whether the words and phrases I have suggested be published in green actually are or not is not especially important. What is important, in my opinion, is to realize and teach that some things Paul says in his epistles are not his words but actually expressions of the opposite of what Paul believed and preached and taught!
This is an example of where a “flat reading” of scripture is wrong. Scripture is literature and has to be read as such. It requires insightful interpretation.
To use a silly example, I will dare to retell a probably apocryphal story about misinterpreting the Bible. Allegedly, an old-fashioned preacher detested the practice of women’s hair being piled up on top of their heads and believed it was a violation of the spirit of the biblical injunction that women’s hair should not be cut. So he found a verse in a gospel (or Gospel) where Jesus says (in the KJV) that in the last days, “let him who is on the housetop not come down.” (Matthew 24:17) He, the evangelist, preached a sermon entitled “Let the topknot come down!” Yeah. Probably an “evangelegend.” But, based on some of the awful sermons I heard when I was growing up, it’s not impossible! I once heard a sermon on “the joys of immorality.” Of course, the preacher meant “immortality.” Go ahead, laugh. Maybe I just heard that one did that!
My point here: The Bible is NOT self-interpreting IF that means it needs no careful, thoughtful, insightful and even educated interpretation. Knowing, for example, that Paul’s second epistle (or is it both second and third together?) to the Corinthians was written as a response to false apostles (“divine man missionaries”) is essential to understanding the epistle. (Many scholars believe our 2 Corinthians actually contains two letters stitched together.)
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